tv Chief Engineer CSPAN September 9, 2017 8:01am-8:51am EDT
presidency. eric larson talks about isaac storm, a deadly hurricane that hit galveston, texas, in 1900 x. to mark the 16th anniversary of 9/11, we're bringing back a program from our archives. it's from 2006, and it's lawrence wright discussing his pulitzer prize-winning book, "the looming tower." that's all this weekend on c-span2's booktv. it's television for serious readers. and now we're kicking off this weekend with author erica wagner. she recalls the life of the builder of the brooklyn bridge. >> the books under the bridge series has been going on for several years now. it's a wonderful program that brings together various brooklyn booksellers, and they're allowed to program a monday in july and august. and as i said, we're very lucky to always get to do it and do it -- be the first one in the
series. so i'd like to thank quay and devon who currently run the program here and remind you there are several more coming up in july and august. the next is powerhouse arena with sarah girard and hannah tente speaking. a little bit about this book and about erica wagner. as you can tell from the backdrop here, this is a great topic for this setting in brooklyn bridge park. you know, not -- most great monuments don't have, don't inspire great writing, but i would say the brooklyn bridge is an exception to all of that. you know, from hart crane, you know, to many other poets and writers and notably to the nonfiction writer david mccullough, there have been really inspired writing on this subject. and err can ca wagner is right up there -- erica wagner is
right up there. what she's done with this biography of washington roebling is even remind everyone how even though she was the son of -- he was the son of a designer, he was the person along with his wife who got it through, you know, a dozen or so years to the end. and it was only -- it's coming up, i think, on 150 years ago when his father die just up here in the heights behind you. and the young 32-year-old took over and brilliantly brought it to life. a little bit about erica. you know, she's written on many different topics. we were just talking about her notable book about ted hughes and sylvia platte. she is a new yorker by birth and has been a critic and a literary
editor. he's currently at harper's baa sa in the u.k. harper's"harper's bazaar" in t. we are very pleased that she has come over from england to speak to us today, and i hope you'll all give a nice round of applause to erica wagner. [applause] >> erica wagner, who's a little small, so i might try and -- is that okay? can you hear me? very good. i'm going to put this down. well, thank you so much, peter, and i am really thrill to be here at books beneath the bridge. as peter was saying, it's really hard to imagine a better backdrop for my talk this evening. i am never not moved when i look
at this view, which perhaps you won't be surprised to hear coming from me, but i'll explain to you a little bit why that is. i'm going to tell you how i became involved in washington's story, and i'm going to tell you a little bit about the building of the bridge, and then i'll keep an eye on the time, and then i might realize to you a little bit -- realize to you a little bit -- read to you a little bit from the book itself. i carry a picture of washington roebling in my wallet. the man who built the brooklyn bridge, as it says on the cover of my book. but not just any picture. the one i've kept with me since i was 19 years old. in case you're wondering, i'm 49 now. it's a photograph taken in 1861 when washington, at the age of
24, had just joined the union army. so when i was still a teenager, i photocopied it from a book in the new york public library. i covered it with stuck -- sticky tape to protect it, and i made a little envelope to keep it even safer. i wrote w.a.r. on that little envelope, washington's initials. his middle name was augustus, and as it happens my full name is era augusta wagner, so make what you will of that. a strange story perhaps, so i will elaborate somewhat. i grew up across the river on the upper west side. i have to anytime that i never set -- admit that i never set foot on the brooklyn bridge until i was a teenager. i got myself a boyfriend; a young, english civil engineer. he came to visit me in new york one winter.
but in truth, i think it wasn't really me he wanted to visit. be it was the brooklyn bridge. and so we walked on the promenade together, and like so many before and so many since, i was struck with wonder by the bridge. and it was no bad thing that i had someone with me who could explain to me how it really worked. the boyfriend did what boyfriends do, he disapur -- disappeared. but there you go. however, my fascination with the bridge remained. how did it get there? who made it? i began to read all i could about it, and that is how i met washington. i read hamilton schuyler's early biography of the ro to -- roeblings, i realize newspaper arms and finally the gripping
and shocking biography washington wrote of his father, john a.roebling. i heard washington's voice as clear as a bell inside my head, erasing the mere century that separated us. i am and always have been a writer. i have never been an engineer. washington spoke to me as one writer to another. it seemed to me that he wanted me to speak for him. on the cover of "chief engineer" there is a different photograph of washington, one taken in 1864 not long before he left the army after four years' hard fighting in the american civil war. one of the most dreadful conflicts the world has ever seen. but that war was only one of the many challenges this extraordinary man would face, a man who was born in 1867 on -- in 1837 on the frontier and who died in 1926 in the jazz age.
his life was a life that spanned an american century. he was a man who made an american icon, a bridge that has not only serve new york's -- served new york's commuters and tourists and lovers for nearly a century and a half, but has inspired poets and painters and photographers from hart crane to georgia o'keefe to walker percy. but who was this man? why do i care about him so muchsome i want to show you. i want you to care too. so i need you to know what an unprecedented feat of engineering the brooklyn bridge was. the first suspension bridge with cables made of steel. a bridge with a span that would not be significantly surpassed for 50 years, not until the building of the george washington bridge.
and a bridge built using a dangerous new technology, one that washington pioneered at great cost to himself. he had taken over the project after the death of his father, john roebling, a famous engineer who had bridged the knew ago a rah falls and the ohio river in cincinnati. at that time, many people thought to bridge the east river was impossible, but if anyone should be the man to accomplish the feat, well, john roebling was that man. and then one day in the summer of 1869 before any real work had been started, before very many plans had been made, john roebling had what seemed to be a minor accident just over there, down by the river. before two weeks had passed, he was dead. a horrible death from tetanus.
and it was left to his son to take over the work. washington had built bridges for the army during the war. he had supervised the work on his father's ohio bridge. yet for all of his expertise, he had been his father's lieutenant. but now john roebling was no more. the bridge's great towers, their gothic silhouettes recognizable all over the world are set on foundations deep beneath the east river. those foundations were sunk using case-ons, huge chambers set on the river's bed. inside these chambers, hundreds of men dug out sand and stone while blocks of granite and limestone built the great tower above. a case-on is launched like a ship from a dock, an upside down
ship. it is towed to its correct position in the river and then sunk to settle on the mud bethe surface of the water. beneath the surface of the water. there were shafts to let in men and material and to bring waste material up as the men head down towards the bedrock far below. the case-on is made offed wood. its roof layer upon layer of dense pitch pine. there were shaft, too, to pump compressed air into the chamber. it's the compressedded air which keeps the river out. what's it like to work in come press air? it's like deep sea diving. come up too fast from the dense atmosphere, and you get very sick, indeed. in the 21st century, this is called decompression sickness, but in the 19th century when -- thanks to projects such as the building of the brooklyn bridge -- its symptoms began to
appear, it was called case-on disease. getting the bends, some people say is. nitrogen bubbles in the blood causing a nicing pain, paralysis -- agonizing pain, paralysis and sometimes death. but that was only one of the dangers faced in this great work. the roof of this case-on remember was made of wood. and one day in 1870 deep underwater the wooden roof of the case-on caught fire. in the roebling archives at washington's alma mater is a remarkable document. it is a note written first in pencil, then crossed out and rewritten in ink in a hand that is still almost completely ledge jill de-- legible, despite the passage of time. accident is beheading, and it
begins with one word, fire. throughout his life washington roebling would write on any available scrap of paper; on the back of old stationery, on old bill, on a random slips. evidence of the need to keep every detail in miss mind. it reads now almost like a kind of urgent poetry. several small fires, leaks in seams, a caulking of -- [inaudible] catches easily. some easily put out. had to flood case-on. danger of doing i. increased caution. water pipes, hose, steam hose from outside. fire on night of december 1st. candle pointing with cement, bad place would not be seen. burnt appearance. loving coals, no smoke. risks. ultimate decision.
1,350,000 gallons of water, fire not out until roof reached. on the timber roof of the case-on, the tower would rest. if the towers were to fail, all would fail. everything could have been lost thanks to a moment's carelessness. washington carefully considered what had caused the blaze. the immediate cause of the fire must be owing to a candle held in the right hand of the man who had his coat or dinner in a candle box which was nailed up over the door close to the roof, he surmised. he could only reach the box by stepping up on a frame brace when he would hold a candle with his right hand and reach into the box with his left. he must have held the candle there at least a minute, washington wrote. the man, the brooklyn eagle reported, was called mcdonald. once he had seen the hole burn
through the wood, he filled it with plaster to conceal his blunder. he soon disappeared, the paper wrote, and has not been seen sense. but many -- seen since. but in the oxygen-rich atmosphere, the wood kept burning. living coals, as washington described them. buckets of water with, carbon dioxide from fire extinguishers had no effect. a desperate remedy had to be try. there was nothing for it but to flood the case-on from above. but such a plan was more than just risky. if the air should all be out before the water had reach the roof, the result would be a sudden drop of the case-on, and the destruction of all supports by the weight of 28,000 tons besides running the risk of causing the case-on to leak so badly at to render -- as to render reinflation impossible. washington had never been a man
to stay at his desk. the chief engineer was 33 years old now. he was down at the worksite, down in the case-on as much or more as anyone who worked for him. but now the hard work, and more crucially, the weight of responsibility began to take its toll on washington. he had a team of assistants you should him, but a -- under him, but a decision such as this was his alone. all these considerations had to be carefully weighed, and the risks looked at from both sides before giving the order to flood the case-on. there was no intelligent mind to consult with as all of my assistants make it a point to live three miles away from this work so as not to be on hand in case of an emergency, he wrote with not a little bitterness. in the meantime, i had been down in the case-on for seven hours and began to experience that peculiar numb feel anything the small of the back and lower
limbs which precedes paralysis. fire boats were called. 1,350,000 gallons of water were poured down through the case-on shafts, and the case-on remained flooded for two and a half days. it settled by only two inches. when the water was eventually pushed out, the damage had to be painstakingly repaired, work of months. p eleven courses of timber had been damaged, more pine was forced into the breaches, and iron straps were bolted to the chamber's roof. after those seven hours down in the case-on, washington had to be taken home and rubbed for an hour on the spine with salt and whiskey. he had try to rest, but at any moment expected to hear the doorbell ring with a message that the case-on was burning yet. he recovered enough, clearly, to write up his notes. whether it was the salt and
whiskey which did the trick or simply being away from the case-on, we don't know. we don't know if his wife emily tended to him or how much he would have seen of his 3-year-old son. what we can know is that nothing stopped him from his task. every day brought new challenges and new uncertainties. washington roebling might call all this simply doing his job. but considering the strength of mind and feeling required to do that job is what draws us back to a room and a house in brooklyn heights, a room scented with smoke and whiskey to find washington back at his desk. there was still no end of solutions to be found. the construction of the brooklyn bridge took 14 years. during those years, washington's health continued to worsen. the manner in which emily ro to
ebling came to the aid of her husband in the time of his illness is an astonishing story in itself. when the bridge finally opened in may 1883, there was a celebration such as the cities of new york and brooklyn had never seen and perhaps have never seen from that day to this. but this remarkable story is only part of washington roebling's remarkable life. in order to trace that life, i spent hours in the archives of rpi and rutgers university i leafed through washington's college notes. belief me, you can be glad you didn't go to rpi in the 1850s. i read his love letters, i read his words in praise of his beloved old dog, billy sunday. i traveled to the pretty little town in western pennsylvania where washington i grew up and
which remains, astonishingly, pretty much as it was when john roebling built it in the 1830s. i walked across the ohio river and on the battlefield at gettysburg. i went to cold springs cemetery where washington and emily are buried. on her gravestone he had three words inscribed, "gifted, noble, true." it has been a wonderful journey. i have built my own bridge, i hope, from the past to the present day. has been my companion for three decades because i am inspired by his tenacity, by the strength of his spirit. if a problem was put in front of him, he would not rest until it was solved. his life was, in many ways, a privileged one, but it was also one marked by brutality and
scarred by wars of more than one kind. nevertheless, he persisted always. when i have felt discouraged, he has given me courage. when i want to give up, he helps me to go on. i know that nothing can be done perfectly at the first trial, he once wrote. i also know that each day brings its little quota of experiences which, with honest intentions, will lead to perfection after a while. so that's just a little bit about how this remarkable structure came to be built all those years ago, a structure that has endured with some but not much alteration from that day to this. i thought i'd read you, too, a little bit from the book. as i mentioned in my talk, emily
roebling, washington's wife, was a truly remarkable woman. when he became very ill in the 1870s, the episode that i just read to you was the beginning of his sickness. he got much, much sicker after that. in 1873 and 1875, he really thought that he would die. he didn't die. he remain in control of the bridge. but emily was his extraordinary assistant. helping him, going down to the bridge site to consult with the other engineers, talking to the trustees, doing all the kind of complicated politics that washington actually really didn't like anyway himself and probably wouldn't have been particularly good at. and she was an astonishing woman in her own right. and he met her during the civil war, which is also a fascinating period in washington's life.
so i thought i would tell you a little bit about their, about their meeting. so they met not long after the battle of gettysburg. that was in july of 1863. in very late november and early december 1863 in orange county, virginia, general mead made an attempt to strike at the right flank of the confederate army. but the field fortifications that lee had prepared in the little valley at mine run prove a match for the union army as washington himself -- along with general warren, his commanding officer -- discovered personally. at break of dawn by light of the moon, warren and i crawled on our knees close up to lee's works, found to them fully manned, high and strong, built the year before. no assault could have succeeded. 10,000 men would have been slaughteredded. mine run was lost the day before
when the works were unoccupied and we could have walked in but waited for nothing. despite the mud and the slaughter, some diversion was to be found. on february 22nd, 1864, washington roebling found himself invited to a ball. you know the third corps had a a ball some six weeks since, and the second was determined to put that ball into the shade entirely, he wrote four days later to his sister, elvira, his closest confidant in such matters. the evening was, as far as washington was concerned, a spectacular success. our supper cost $1500 and was furnished by party miss washington. in washington. the most prominent ladies of washington were present from ms. hamlin, daughter of the vice president, kate chase -- the strikingly beautiful daughter of lincoln's treasury secretary.
it's perhaps interesting to think about powerful government daughters right now. i'm just dropping that in there. and the mrs. hale downs, the daughters of the senator from new hampshire. but these women were not the reason for washington's letter to his sister. haas but not least was miss emily warren, the sister of the general who came specially from west point to attend the ball. it was the first time i ever saw her, and i am very much of the opinion that she has capture your brother's heart at last. it was a real attack in force. it came without any warning or any previous realization on my part of such an occurrence taking place and it was, therefore, all the more successful. and i ashower you that it gives -- assure you that it gives me the greatest pleasure to say that i have succumbed. what they said to each other that night, with the way they
danced, what she was wearing, the bloodstream of the candlelight on the buttons of his officer's tunic, all this is lost. but washington's lines to his sister are true and clear. still, he wasn't quite ready for the news to get out. now, don't go like a great big goose and show this letter to everyone, will you, dear? he admonished his younger sister. , no don't. you are my favorite sister, you know, just as she is the general's favorite sister and, therefore, appreciate my feelings. i can just appreciate your feelings at reading this letter and therefore await your speedy answer with impatient. he added a a postsculpt. just the kind of detail a young man notes about his beloved. she gets a sore throat once in a while and is additionally charming, therefore. he signed himself as ever, your affectionate brother, washington. thank you very much.
[applause] >> so i think we're going to take some questions, but i think what we're going to do this year -- which which i don't think we've done in the past -- is to ask people to come up to the microphone. >> oh, wow. you have to be quite brave. come up to the microphone. >> so any questions? any first questions? >> be brave. >> be brave. >> i told you everything you want to know? i must be so wonderful. >> [inaudible] >> what year was the bring completed? >> yeah. >> it was completed in 1883. so 134 years ago. >> i remember -- [inaudible] >> that's right. that's right. that was pretty spectacular. >> yeah. >> exactly. gentleman up there. >> i think we now have a roving mic. thank you. okay. can you come down?
>> [inaudible] >> i'll repeat it. what's the question? >> david mccullough's book, i was very touched by a passage at the end of his life where there was a or night-blooming theorist. did you come across the original documentation for that story? >> yes. yeah. so the question is the gentleman said he was very moved at the end of david mccullough writes about the end of washington roebling's life. he died at 89 years old, and one of his last letters he wrote about a night-blooming flower that he saw that moved him very much. and the gentleman wanted to know if i saw the original documentation for this. yes, i did. and the really remarkable thing
about writing this book was having the privilege to see not only that, but all of the documentation about washington's long life. it's one of the great pleasures of being in an archive, is feeling that you are holding the pieces of paper that your subject held. it's interesting to think generations from now when we're old, you know, everything is on e-mail and on e-files, nobody writes letters anymore, it will be a very different thing. and you come across, i'll just take the liberty of adding you come across extraordinary, unexpected things when you are doing this research. so when i was at rpi, the letter you are describing is at rutgers in new jersey. but when i was at rpi in upstate new york where washington went to college, there are records of
some land that john roebling, washington's father, bought in the late 1850 and the late 1860s. he decided, john roebling decided as well as being an engineer, he was also going to be a farmer in what was then the iowa territory. but he bought this land from former soldiers, and the soldiers had bought the land at a very cheap rate. you got a special deal if you'd been in the army. you could buy land for not hutch money at -- not much money at all. the catch was if you wanted to sell this land to somebody else, the the president of the united states had to sign the deed. and john roebling bought some land in august of 1861. and i'm looking through this file which i have to say i think is going to be a pretty boring file, and i'm not really interested in this iowa period anyway. and there is the deed with the bold signature of abraham lincoln on it. that's the kind of moment that
you have in an archive. and it's extraordinary to think that when he signed this deed for 150 acres, for a tiny little parcel of land, the civil war had been going on for four or five month, and he was still having to do all this paperwork. someone was putting a stack of these little, tiny land deeds on his desk, and he still had to sign them all. so that's why it's amazing working in an archive. long answer to your question. i hope you don't mind. this lady here. hang on. here we go. >> did emily have any formal training as an engineer? >> she had no formal training. >> so she just kind of learned on the job? >> she did. so she took -- he was very incapacitated. his sight was very badly affected, and also he just couldn't stand to be around anybody at all except for her. so she took all of his dictation, right? given that everything that happened then had to be
communicated by writing, you couldn't call anybody up on the phone and explain what you -- what needed to be to done. so everything was done by letters to the trustees, to his assistant engineers. and you can tell if you know his writing well, as i do, that it's his writing, it's his voice, but at some point in -- i think it's late 1875 as i recall -- it's no longer his handwriting. it's hers. she's taking his dictation. she was a very, very smart woman. and also it's important to note that her older brother, general warren -- washington's commanding officer -- loved her very much, and unusually believed that she should be educated. so he had paid for her to the go to school and go to a really good school. so she was well equipped to do this. so she had no formal training,
but she absolutely learned deeply from what her husband was doing. >> [inaudible] did they actually respect her, or is there any -- >> it seems as if they did. it seems asthey did. she was a forceful woman. she was a remarkable woman. and there's, there's a plaque to her, of course, on bridge. anybody else. this young man up there. >> [inaudible] >> what was the year when he died, was the question. he died in 1926. he was 89. and there was some, there was a woman all the way over there. >> thanks. i was just wondering if you could talk a little wit about the conditions -- a little bit about the conditions of building the bridge and what it was like actually being in the process, like the workers.
>> oh, like the workers? sure. the question was what were the conditions like for the workers who were building the brooklyn bridge. not very good, is the brief answer to that question. in the 19th century, health and safety was, like, not a big thing at all. it's worth saying that conditions on brooklyn bridge were better than on me give lent structures -- many equivalent structures. washington was aware it wasn't just him who was getting sick, the men were getting sick as well. and he hired a doctor, a man called andrew smith, to try and look after the men who were starting to suffer from case-on disease. andrew smith did not figure out -- he almost did -- what was causing this mysterious illness. but he did try and tend to the men. part of the problem was you
couldn't keep hold of the men. i mean, they came to work, and then they wanted to rush off home. there were no unions, there were no -- it was a very casual labor force. there were other kinds of accidents as well. there were accidents with stone, and then the men who made the cables, you know, all the work up there, they tended to be ships riggers, so they were accustomedded to working high up. -- accustomed to working high up. as i say, in the 19th century on any worksite the safety and security of the men working was never a top priority. so it was pretty, it was pretty awful. anybody else. there's a gentleman in front here. excellent. thank you very much. oh, now it's not on. [laughter] >> [inaudible] also the degree to which the
finishing of the bridge impacted brooklyn and the politicization of the cities? i understand it increased the population a lot, but i'm wondering if that helped turning brooklyn and new york into one place. >> yeah. the question is how much did the completion of the bridge lead to the unification of new york and brooklyn. and the growth of brooklyn as a city. because it was really, a lot of it, was still farmland, you know, early from the 1860s. i can speak to some of that, a little bit. so, yes, absolutely is the answer. of course, before the bridge was built you had to go across by ferry. "the new york times" estimated that 70 millioner ferry crossins were made every year. and, of course, the ferries couldn't run if the river was icy. there were ferry accidents. so the brooklyn bridge was the beginning of the linking of
manhattan and brooklyn. and, absolutely, it led to both the further growth of brooklyn and i believe it was in 1898 are that brooklyn became part of greater new york. so it is absolutely true that the brooklyn bridge play a crucial role in that process. anyone else. >> -- have to be adjusted for cars? or when was the first car -- >> oh, yes. did the bridge have to be adjusted for cars. yes, the bridge has had quite a few adjustments over the years. the main one was in the late 1940s, early 1950s dun by an -- done by an engineer called steinman who strengthened -- if you look at photographs of the brooklyn bridge before that time, there's a very beautiful photograph of the brooklyn
bridge. the whole span of the bridge that was taken in 1925 by a man called irving underhill. washington really loved this photograph. he got hold of it the year before he died. it's in rpi, and he's written on the back of this big print, keep this for my album in his very neat handwriting. but if you look at that photograph, you will see that the truss work around the roadway is much finer, right? it looks -- the roadway looks a little more delicate. you could say it was a bit more beautiful. i still think it's menially beautiful. -- plenty beautiful. so it was strengthened. it's still, as i'm sure you know, you can't drive a truck over the brooklyn bridge, so it still has a weight limit on it. and, of course, when it opened too, there were trains that went across it. trains that were not part of the network of transportation, but almost like a it will cable car
that went -- like a little cable car that went back and forth. there was a station in brooklyn x there was a station in new york. and you can see these trains. and they stopped running in the '50s. and there's actually a remarkable film if you go on to the library of congress' web site, if you google library of congress, edison, brooklyn bridge, you will see a little minute-long movie taken in 1898. so it's one of the earliest movies ever taken from the front car of the train going from brooklyn to new york. it's really amazing. it was, you know, you can't put a little movie in a book, but i was sorry i couldn't get that in. so, yes, it's had all kinds of adjustments. again, as i'm sure you know, it's just had a big half a billion dollar facelift.
i think the people in new york tends to be a little better at looking after its infrastructure -- i know. it just goes to show how bad a lot of it it is all over the country. but we have a lot of really famous infrastructure. you know, people know that you have to look after the brooklyn bridge. but, yes it's withstood those changes. but part of the reason it's withstood those changes was because when it was designed, it was designed to be much, much stronger than it needed to be at the time. so the cables were designed to be six times as strong as they needed to be to hold up the bridge. so that's part of the reason that it's been able to have this really extraordinary, long life. anybody else? yes. >> [inaudible] stronger than they needed to be? >> why did he make the cables six times stronger than they need to be? that's a good question.
really because suspension bridge building was still in its infancy. right? the thing about bridges in the 19th century was they fell down. and lots of people thought that it was not possible to build this bridge. plenty of people believed that such a thing couldn't be done. the span was too far. it would have to be too big and too heavy, nothing could possibly hold this up. so i believe it was partly to convince people, to say, look, it's really, really not going to fall down. this is how strong the cables are. and that was, if you look in the, if you look in contemporary newspapers of the time, particularly we have a gentleman here this evening representing the brooklyn eagle, i am pleased to say, and the brooklyn eagle was a great supporter of the bridge from its earliest days. the editor thought that this was a really great idea.
and so you can sew in articles that were -- you can see in articles that were presented to the public, this is how it was shown to be, that it would be safe, that it would be safe to cross. >> what did he do in between 1883 and 1926? >> what did he do between 1883 and 1926, well, of course, i'm not quite going to say is, you have to read the book. but i'll el you a little. -- i'll tell you a little. again, it's a good question because he never built another bridge. his health was very badly affected. it's hard to know how much of what afflicted him was physical and how much was psychological. i think you have to be careful of retrospective diagnosis. he had had a very brutal upbringing too, and he'd suffer pretty badly during the american civil war, so he did not build another bridge.
he was very involved in the family firm. the roebling family made their fortune in wire rope, the wires that support the brooklyn bridge -- although, in fact, the main cables are not made from roebling wire, but john roebling patented wire rope in america. wire rope just looks like rope, but it's made of wire and, of course, it enables not just suspension bridges to be built, but elevators, telegraphs, telephones, airplanes, automobiles. it was a hugely important product for the growth of the united states and world in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. and john a. r ounce -- roebling's company was the biggest in the united states to manufacture this stuff. washington was very involved in the company. he also was a passionate mineralogist.
he was a geologist and a mineral collector, and he had one of the best mineral collections in the country. and he gave it -- after he died, it was willed to the smithsonian where it really is the foundation of their remarkable collection. but when he was 84 in 1981, he was always involved -- in 1921, he was always involved with the family firm, but he didn't take a salary. he just advised his brothers and kept an eye on what was going on. in 1921, despite complaining all his life of his terrible health, he outlived one younger brother, then another younger brother, two of his nephews, and at the age of 84, he took over the presidency of john a. roebling sons company. he went into the office every single day, and he modernized the company in the years before his death. so he kept, he kept busy. >> [inaudible]
>> this -- oh, sorry. come right back to you. >> i was wondering, how did they go, manage through the depression? i mean, is there a roebling company now? >> no, there's not. how did they manage through the depression. it wasn't really the -- the depression did affect them, but it was really family firms gradually got swallowed up by huge conglomerates. there's the story. the roebling family firm held out for much longer than many such firms often do. and if you ever find yourself near trenton, new jersey, i urge you to visit the roebling museum which is about 10 miles from trenton, and it's a gorgeous little museum on the site of the former mill. and it's really lovely. and it's in a very beautiful site because the mill was all cleaned up. it was a superfund site, so
there's a very beautiful park there as well, as well as this little museum. there was gentleman. >> yeah. you've hinted that washington was traumatized by his father john and that he wrote about that. do we need to read your book to find out more, or can you tell us -- >> i will tell you a little. i have hinted that washington was traumatized by his father john. yes, he was traumatized by husband father john. when -- by his father john. when he was an older man in his 50s and then in his 70s, washington sat down to write a biography of his father. it should be said that washington roebling really admire his father. he believed that his father was a great man, and john roebling was a great man. he was one of those giants of the 19th century who had visions that other people did not have. he was a person of extraordinary
energy and drive and inventiveness. he built a whole industry from nothing. and washington admired this tremendously, which is why he sat down to write a biography of his father. but the extraordinary thing about this manuscript -- which vanished for a long time -- is that he couldn't help writing about himself. he keeps writing about himself and his childhood and, indeed, the civil war. but when he writes about himself and his childhood, what he also can't help writing about is his father's shocking brutality. it's really frightening to read. it jumps off the page at you. it's terrible. now, of course, it's one man's account. it's washington's account. but what i felt reading it is i thought of washington roebling
in his 50s, at the age of 70 -- he wrote it in kind of two chunks. by this point he was an extremely wealthy, successful man. the first citizen of trenton living in an enormous mansion on state street, this incredible house. enormously well respected. and yet when he turned to his childhood, these terrible memories came up. so you never know really what goes on in a family, in a life. but in washington's mind, in his heart, in his soul this stuff was right there for him. and it's, but it's very moving to read because it's not just this horror show. as i say, he admires his father. he keeps coming back to that. and that he wants to persist with this account of his
father's important life. [applause] >> i just want to say thank you, everyone, for coming out. and thank you, erica. i want to just stress as great a historian as she is and a biography, you're a wonderful writer, and what you're missing by not reading this book is quite a bit. so please hang around if you would like to get a copy of the book. we have copies for sale here. and don't forget that next monday there will be another event for books beneath the bridge, so thank you again. [applause] >> thank you. [inaudible conversations] >> this weekend on c-span2's